‘Game of Thrones’ Prequel Reclaims Legacy Of Hit HBO Series
Dec 9, 2022
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” went from an Emmy-winning phenomenon to a target of some serious, intense derision in its final seasons, even from its once-hardcore fans. Therefore, the prospect of returning to this fantasy universe barely over three years after departing it comes with some inherent apprehension. Is this just a cash grab? A way for HBO to profit off the still giant fanbase of the world of Westeros? Or will it reclaim some of the artistic legacies of the show based on the beloved novels by George R.R. Martin? The somewhat shocking answer is how much it succeeds on that front, using its massive budget to present viewers with some of the most remarkably well-produced fantasy TV since the original show, and even giving them characters that could someday rival the popularity of Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, and so it’s hard to envision “House of the Dragon” taking the TV world by storm as much as “Game of Thrones” once did, but this is a surprisingly entertaining drama, one created by people who clearly know how to play to the strengths of the original show while also carving its own identity. It can sometimes feel less ambitious than those early seasons of ‘GOT,’ but this is robust fantasy storytelling of a pedigree that we haven’t really seen since, well, you know.
READ MORE: ‘House Of The Dragon’ Director On Why HBO Went With A More Straightforward ‘Thrones’ Prequel: “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It”
“House of the Dragon” takes place 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, detailing the internal battle for the Iron Throne that would ultimately impact some of the action of the original series (and it pulls some material from Martin’s 2018 prequel “Fire & Blood,” for the record). The Sean Bean of this era is King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), whose legacy has been tarnished by his inability to produce a male heir. The fact that his daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) carries the wrong chromosome hasn’t made her any less headstrong, but Westeros is not ready for a female leader. Viserys’ brother Daemon (Matt Smith) claims he should be the heir to the throne should something happen to his older sibling, but much of “House of the Dragon” is about the warring factions trying to appeal to the King about taking his place—it’s very much a fantasy version of “Succession” if you think about it.
For example, Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) has a plan to wed his child daughter to the King at one point, but it’s mostly a political play to wed their two houses. Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King, preaches loyalty to his master but even his motives start to become questionable, especially when it comes to his daughter Alicent (Emily Carey). As with “Game of Thrones,” the ensemble spreads out from here to include other residents of Westeros caught in this political struggle, although “House of the Dragon” is more tightly focused in its narrative at least at the start, content to really center the battle of wills between Viserys/Daemon/Rhaenyra for the first half of the season before taking a big enough leap in time that it requires recasting of a few major characters and the season’s second half feels likely to hold a different, more somber energy if the sixth episode is the tone
With the tighter focus in mind, the producers must have carefully considered who to cast in these key roles, and the decisions made there end up being some of the show’s greatest assets. Matt Smith prowls the elaborate sets of Castle Targaryen with an animalistic energy, cutting the kind of captivating presence that will likely make him the fan favorite from this show, but the real discovery is Alcock, who never overplays the potential clichés of her character and finds something relatable instead without pushing too far into modernity. It’s been widely reported, and so it’s no spoiler to reveal that the show jumps forward several years after the conclusion of its first half-season, replacing Alcock and Carey with Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, respectively. They’re both excellent in their one episode sent to press, especially Cooke, but the impact that Alcock makes in those first five episodes feels essential to the long-term success of this show.
As for Considine, he understands that his role isn’t as flashy as some of the other cast members, and so goes nicely subtle and underplayed most of the time, as does the underrated Ifans, who could have played with Otto with a snarl but knows that a calm-but-forceful cadence is more appropriate. There are so many moments in these performances that one can picture the mistakes lesser actors would have made—and that have been seen in so many lesser fantasy shows—but there’s really not a weak link in this cast, something that helped make “Game of Thrones” a smash hit too. They make all the right decisions, which can’t be undervalued here.
Of course, another reason ‘GOT’ became an industry behemoth was its production value. From the beginning, it looked like a blockbuster Hollywood film on TV every week. While “House of the Dragon” has a more limited scope to start, the tech aspects of the show can still be downright breathtaking. It’s not just the CGI fire-breathers that are more prevalent, but the way that this team balances the scope of epic battle scenes with the tight framing of council debates. Once again, the score by Ramin Djawadi, which very purposefully echoes the original in key moments, is a beauty, but so are the production design and cinematography. With so much modern television feeling like it came from a content factory—especially some recent shows that probably don’t exist without “Thrones”—it’s refreshing to see a show with creators who have clearly considered things like framing, pacing, and detail.
“House of the Dragon” can get more than a little talky, especially for the people who preferred the more action-packed final seasons of its predecessor. In fact, just as the debates over crown lineage are reaching a peak, the writers actually let Valerys speak for viewers by saying he’s “suffocated by all this fucking politicking!” And yet it’s really this choice to go back to political dynamics that helps “House of the Dragon” escape the shadow of the end of “Game of Thrones.” It’s a world in which conflicting motives have as much power as a sword. Unless, of course, you have a dragon. [B+]
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